Washington - The problem for Mitt Romney, assuming he eventually wins the GOP nomination, is that a general election campaign isn't really like an Etch a Sketch. Alas, traces from the primaries linger.
The ghost image that remains will be of a strikingly uninspiring standard-bearer who deadened the Republican Party's great passion into a sense of duty. Voters will discern the outlines of a candidate who spent the better part of a decade running for president without giving evidence of a core philosophy beyond his belief in Wall Street's brand of capitalism.
It must be safe, by now, to predict that Romney wins the nomination. Right? I mean, yes, there's a chance that Rick Santorum will stay in the race and somehow manage to keep Romney from wrapping things up before the convention. But even then, Romney would likely arrive in Tampa with such a big lead, and needing so few delegates to go over the top, that any challenge would be futile.
In an attempt to foreclose even the remote possibility of a contested convention, the Romney campaign has been trotting out a bevy of prominent Republicans to announce their support. But is it just me, or do these three endorsements have all the enthusiasm of a series of hostage tapes?
"It's increasingly clear that Mitt Romney's gonna be the Republican nominee," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. He expressed confidence that Romney "will govern as a conservative" -- saying nothing about whether Romney actually (BEG ITAL)is(END ITAL) a conservative -- and added that the front-runner would be "head and shoulders better than the guy who's in the White House now."
Said Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., "I think this primary has been productive -- I think it's been constructive up till now ... but I think we're entering a phase where it could become counterproductive if this drags on much longer. ... I'm just convinced now that if we drag this thing on to the summer, it's gonna make it that much harder to defeat Barack Obama."
Said former President George H.W. Bush, "I do think it's time for the party to get behind Governor Romney. ... Kenny Rogers sang, 'It's time when to hold 'em and time when to fold 'em.' Well, I think it's time for people to all get behind this good man."
Santorum keeps trying to point out that the last time the party settled for a nominee who failed to set conservative hearts aflutter -- four years ago, with John McCain -- things didn't work out so well, from the GOP point of view. If Santorum hadn't lost his 2006 re-election bid by 18 points, maybe more people would listen.
It was Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom who suggested that the general election campaign would begin with a blank slate, like a shaken Etch a Sketch. But the truth is that come the fall, Romney will still be Romney.
Nothing can erase the fact that he authored a health care reform in Massachusetts, including an individual insurance mandate, that was used as the model for Obamacare. Nothing can erase the way he has pandered to the far right during the primaries -- taking, for example, a hard-line position on undocumented immigrants that calls for "self-deportation" -- in an attempt to disavow his erstwhile political identity as a moderate.
And I'm afraid that nothing can erase the impression Romney has made, through a host of statements and actions, of having allowed his great wealth to isolate him from the cares and woes of the rest of humanity. You know the litany: "Corporations are people, my friend." "I'm not concerned about the very poor." "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me." "Ann (Romney) drives a couple of Cadillacs."
My personal favorite came at the Daytona 500, when Romney was asked if he followed NASCAR. "Not as closely as some of the most ardent fans," Romney replied, "but I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners."
In the fall, Romney will also have to defend a belligerent and weirdly anachronistic set of policies, or postures, concerning America's role in the world. His description of Russia as "without question our number-one geopolitical foe" was bizarre, but I don't think it was accidental. Romney seems to be itching to wage a Cold War, and if one doesn't exist, he'll invent one -- with Russia, China, somebody.
A recent Washington Post poll showed Romney's approval ratings having slumped to a dangerous level, with just 34 percent of Americans viewing him favorably. He's got an awful lot of shaking to do.